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Breast cancer vaccine is being tested at University of Washington

(Photo by Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana, CC Images)

Seattle is world famous for its cancer research. One of the more promising developments at the UW Medicine Cancer Vaccine Institute is a breast cancer vaccine.

Institute director, Dr. Nora Disis, says they came at it like a flu vaccine when they first tested it on mice.

“These are mice that were genetically engineered to develop breast cancer,” she said. “And it’s really hard to prevent them from developing breast cancer because they have a gene that makes them get it. When we vaccinated the mice against these proteins, we were able to prevent the development of breast cancer in about 50 percent (of mice). If we also gave them a pill that was shown to kind of slow down breast cancer growth, but not totally stop it, we were able to increase that to about 95 percent of the animals; we could keep them cancer-free.”

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Dr. Disis has since started the clinical trial, testing the vaccine on people. The third person in the world to try the vaccine is cancer survivor Kristi Blair.

“I was diagnosed at the age of 35, mother of five,” Blair said. “Over the last 10 years, I had also been involved in breast cancer, sadly, with my mom who lost her life.”

In honor of her mother, Blair started the Wings of Karen Foundation. It’s raised $100,000 so that Dr. Disis could manufacture the vaccine for trials. After the money was raised, Blair discovered she was a perfect candidate for the trial and became a patient as well as an advocate for accelerating cancer research.

“There’s an absolute fear, I think I can speak to, not only for myself but for anyone who’s gone through cancer whether it’s breast, ovarian, colon cancer, you name it,” Blair said. “That fear of that reoccurrence is kind of always in the back of your mind because those stats are there. There is still quite a bit of reoccurrence for breast cancer survivors. So to have this vaccine be targeting that exact fear, with real tangible hope and a drug that could eliminate that fear is lifesaving in its own mental way.”

UW breast cancer vaccine

This vaccine is primarily designed to prevent early staged cancers from coming back. But it could be used as a preventative for some women. Dr. Disis says it’s not something you’d want to give to young people to prevent them from ever developing cancer.

“I’m not sure it would be great for kids because many of these proteins that we’re immunizing against that go awry in cancer, they’re also proteins that help our cells grow and divide,” Dr. Disis said. “We know that most breast cancers don’t come until women are post-menopausal so I kind of see these vaccines as a preventative vaccine, something you might get once you’re done having your family. As you’re going through menopause you’d also get your breast cancer vaccine. But for women who’ve had breast cancer, I think we’ll see breast cancer vaccines be integrated into part of standard treatment. So you’d come in, you’d get your surgery, you’d probably have chemotherapy, you’d get a vaccine as well.”

One in eight women in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer.

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